Thursday, February 19, 2009

What Would Philip Roth Do?

In a blog post at Critical Mass, Ellen Heltzel explores Ann Patchett’s decisions about which author appearances to accept based on the answer to the question “What would Philip Roth do?” This test is a useful “measuring stick for Patchett” because Roth is known to be “too big and fine to suffer fools or silly solicitations gladly.”

Heltzel’s point is that the test isn’t working very well for Patchett, who recently shared the stage with Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) at the Portland Arts & Lectures series where the two women “chatt[ed] in front of hundreds of people like two girls at a slumber party.” For Heltzel, appearances like this are one reason why women writers aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts:
For women writers who think they still aren’t taken as seriously as the men in their field, here was Exhibit A for why that might occur: a coupla chicks sitting around talking while an audience pays $26.50 a seat to hear them indulge in a bout of self- and mutual admiration. … [Toni] Morrison would flick off such public familiarity as easily as she would a bad sentence.

Heltzel contrasts the Patchett/Gilbert appearance—where the two women “sat with feet tucked underneath them in two oversized upholstered chairs”—with an earlier appearance by Joyce Carol Oates at the same event. By standing at a lectern and “exud[ing] competence and demand[ing] respect,” Oates “served herself and the cause of literature.”

On top of uninspiring appearances, Heltzel questions whether inherent stylistic differences between male and female writers may fuel the gender gap. Adopting the viewpoint expressed by Lauren Groff (author of The Monsters of Templeton, a finalist for the Orange Prize for New Writers), Heltzel notes that “awards go to fiction that is written from the point of view of a man, concerns war, and has very short sentences—Hemingwayesque, as it were.” Even accepting Haltzel’s scurrilous gender stereotype regarding writing style, she doesn’t provide any support for her conclusion that we respect a Hemingwayesque style more than a more ornate style. In fact, several recent award winners refute her point (e.g., The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (winner of the 2008 Costa Book of the Year) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)).

And if one unsupported gender-based stereotype isn’t enough, Heltzel suggests another one—subject matter:

Fiction that deals with the big topics of the day, not the domestic sphere, is more readily imbued with the gravitas of great literature—pace War and Peace, not to mention Don DeLillo.
I suppose Heltzel is implying that women writers are more interested in “the domestic sphere” than male writers, another conclusion that doesn’t hold up for contemporary literary fiction (although it might fairly be applied to 18th and 19th century fiction). These days, the domestic sphere is fertile ground for both male and female writers.

Near the end of her post, Heltzel hits upon a valid point:

Another factor working against women writers is the distractions. … Women still handle the bulk of the job of raising children, not to mention caring for spouses, parents, and friends. They do more housework.
As much as we might hate to admit it, the “distraction factor” likely reduces the quantity of output of some female writers (though certainly not all).

Patchett’s “What would Philip Roth do?” test is not a bad idea, but no matter how faithfully she applies the test, it won’t turn her—or any other female writer looking for more respect—into Philip Roth (whose style, by the way, is not Hemingwayesque).


An Anonymous Child said...

This is really interesting and brought to mind my most recent post. I sort of have to agree in regards to the image of women writers (that curling up on a couch may not look particularly inviting or worth it for a lecture), but something else popped into my mind in regards to "award winners". I'm not sure if it's a blatantly sexist point (or even remotely sexist, or even remotely related to the sex of the writer), but perhaps the reason certain books win awards while others don't is also in regards to the audience. If a book can be appreciated by both men and women as being wonderful, isn't that a more award-worthy book than one that's "woman only"? I honestly don't know the answer to this question; I'm simply thinking aloud (or... typing... aloud?) and am going to need to think about this a lot longer before coming to any conclusive conclusion. This is an important post. Food for thought, no doubt.

Gwen Dawson said...

Anon Child,

That's a good question. I'm not sure a wider audience means a book is more award-worthy. Consider an important, difficult book that may not appeal to a wide audience. Some particularly challenging books garner very little public appreciation but may still be perfectly award-worthy. The distinction might be that a book that turns off a category of readers (men, for example) likely is inherently flawed while a book that challenges readers in all categories might be just the sort of book we need.

rjnagle said...

As far as I'm concerned, literary world is geared mainly to the female audience whereas 20 years ago, precisely the opposite was the case. (The demographics are a little different in the ebook publishing world--which is more male-leaning). It's an odd situation now because the (male) distinguished elders are still writing about the things they used to, and yet the audience is not following them as avidly.

I think the usual feminist complaints about being "excluded" from publishing accolades just seems unpersuasive. To answer Hetzel's point, women have been writing for two genders for much longer than men have.

I also think the "distractions" complaint is not always fair. I know many women writers who only get going on their book after they start their maternity leave (which they extend indefinitely, letting their husbands take care of paying the bills while they try to jumpstart their publishing career).

As far as lecture/readings, I think writers can do whatever they want. (Yet, it seems odd that they are being paid to do these events if they are just acting like celebrities).

BTW, I am such a fan of Oates it is not even funny.

Good post, Gwen.